Monday, June 28, 2010

How the BBC can start saving English football. Today.

While we wait - probably in vain - for the people who run football to take the measures that should be taken to improve our national game, there is one thing that could be done which might make a far-reaching difference to football in this country and it could be done by the BBC before lunchtime today.

They should change Match of The Day.

Obviously MOTD was not responsible for yesterday's mugging but it does set the critical climate in which football is judged in this country. In this it has been responsible for encouraging complacency. Match of The Day is contractually obliged to say that the Premier League is the best in the world but its editorial stance could stand to be more sceptical without over-trying the patience of the armchair fan.

Are these handful of home-grown players the programme scrutinises every week really "world class" or are they just good players made to look better by the foreign players alongside them? Why can none of our honest yeomen midfielders beat their opposite number? Why don't we have defenders who can go forward with the ball? Why do so many of our top players seem so frightened? Shouldn't we be looking at the number of successful passes players complete in the course of a game rather than making an assessment based on one telegenic moment?

The guys who currently appear on MOTD could be sent round the world for a year to broaden their horizons and improve their golf. They could be replaced by pundits who:
a) have something fresh to say
b) will say it without worrying about being cut dead at the next football managers dinner
c) have played the game as it is played today
d) are capable of getting indignant about something other than Sepp Blatter and the introduction of goal-line technology.

What these people say and, more importantly, don't say has an effect on what the average person thinks. This particularly applies to all those football-mad kids who get their idea of the gold standard from its analysis. Yesterday was not just a question of a few great players performing under par. It was more like an entire star system being, in the words of the Nick Lowe song, nutted by reality. The people who helped create that star system should be brought to account.

Danny Baker's guest appearance on the programme during the World Cup was very amusing but mainly notable for the way the rest of the panel sucked in their breath as if he had been guilty of breaching parliamentary privilege. "It's all right," he said to Shearer. "It's football. You can say what you like."

Friday, June 25, 2010

Don't let's be beastly to the Germans

My parents' generation had good reason not to warm to the Germans but they rarely indulged in the kind of knockabout xenophobia we have to put up with in the run-up to Sunday's match. The strange thing is that the people behind it, the ones writing the links on Five Live and the headlines in the tabloids, were probably born in the 70s, long after the end of hostilities, and their jokey antipathy seems to owe more to viewings of The Italian Job, Dad's Army and The Great Escape than it does to anything very real. I heard football writer Mick Dennis on the radio the other day saying that he'd changed his mind about the Germans based on having gone there on holiday ten years ago. It seemed odd that you could have a prejudice so superficial that a few days in a pension was enough to shrug it off. It's not as if he went ashore on D Day and got shot at.

Maybe the key to our feeling about the Germans is in that line that gets attributed to Gary Lineker. "Football is a game with 11 men a side where the Germans win". We only keep referring to the war because we keep losing at football. Maybe it's a way to explain away our national lack of confidence by pretending it's something to do with the continuation of a noble struggle and not because, nine times out of ten, our multi-millionaires don't hold their nerve under pressure quite as well as their mere millionaires. We're very good at jutting out our chins and pretending it's all to do with the bulldog spirit. But then we make silly mistakes and give it away, much like Captain Mainwaring did when he said "don't tell him, Pike!"

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Social kissing and The Archers

There are many things that make Ambridge unique. No two residents have the same first name. Nobody phones anyone, preferring to pop round in person to ensure that their neighbours got the message about the latest project. This is the only village which has a net in-flow of people in their early twenties, most of whom are saving the planet, one yogurt at a time. Members of minority groups arrive in a blaze of controversy and then hang around like spare parts.

Until recently a further thing had made Ambridge an exception to the general drift of life in Britain in 2010. Ambridge was the only place in the nation where there was no social kissing. Guests would turn up at other people's houses for celebrations with none of that osculatory awkwardness in the hall where people have to decide which cheek to lunge for first and judge when everyone has "done" everyone else and it's safe to go and get a drink. This was a bit of a relief. However, all that's changed. When I first noticed social kissing arriving in the Archers - and there was certainly one occasion this past week - I thought to myself, I hope Radio Four are going to extend the running time of the programme by at least a minute to at least make sure all the kissing doesn't eat into the plotlines. Because the thing about social kissing, whether real or dramatic, is that once you start with it you've got to see it through.

Strange that this should arrive in The Archers just as I'm trying to cut down on it in real life. It has its place, of course, in expressing genuine affection and in some cases respect but it can make life more complicated than it need be. At what point does one extend it to your children's grown-up friends? What about those work colleagues who might expect a peck in a social situation but would be understandably freaked out if you started every day with a mwah? What about the people that one meets professionally, then socially and then professionally again? What about - and I confess I have come near this variant with not entirely satisfactory outcomes - the male-on-male mwah? I trust the people at The Archers have had meetings about all this and come up with rules. If they have I would appreciate them giving us all a copy.

Let's be honest. Phones are toys

I have a close friend who worked in the City for many years. When we first met, which was just over twenty years ago, he told me he was an analyst. I asked him what he was analyzing. "Telecoms," he said. I asked him if that was big enough to be a field of its own. Surely it wasn't as big as steel or retail or chemicals or insurance. Obviously everyone had a phone and some people were getting these mobile ones but it still didn't seem substantial enough to qualify as its own industry.

I thought back to this yesterday when I was walking towards Kings Cross after the match. The day was sunny, the team had won and everyone was out on the streets doing something with their phone. Talking, texting, tweeting, checking the score, looking at video, sending each other elaborate jokes. What he should have said to me twenty years ago is that he was involved in the biggest step forward for the toy trade the world had ever seen. That would have been nearer the truth.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Passion is no ordinary word

If you wanted to fly somewhere and were offered a choice between one pilot who was capable and another who was immensely passionate about every aspect of flying, surely you'd choose the former rather than the latter? Feeling strongly about something doesn't make you do it any better. It may well make you do it worse.

England fans blame the team's shortcomings on their lack of passion, the fact that they aren't driven by the same strong emotion that compels them. Well, they wouldn't be, would they? The players are in a position to influence events. The fans exhibit passion - which generally means they shout themselves hoarse - because they aren't in a position to influence events. They persuade themselves that the reason England failed in the last week is because they were thinking about their Porsches. It wasn't because they couldn't pass the ball in a straight line and endured a collective nervous breakdown.

I blogged in the past about what Arsene Wenger said about football and a country's writers. It still holds good. The French dressing room at the moment doesn't look too much like the home of rationalism. I'm sure they'll get over that, as England may even get over their current malaise. At which point all the fans will say, see, they've won because they're finally showing "some passion".

We increasingly sprinkle our national conversation with references to passion. Companies claim to be passionate about everything from magazines to under floor heating. Maybe we do it to invoke a religious or patriotic feeling that we wouldn't allow ourselves to express in any other way. We assume that passion solves all problems. It doesn't. It may well get in the way. Shakespeare wrote his best plays about people in the grip of their own ungovernable passions. Oddly enough he didn't write any about tragic heroes who couldn't do right for doing wrong. That's a far more common feeling.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The iPad and our craving for distraction

There's an interesting piece by Peter Bregman in the Harvard Business Review called "Why I Returned My iPad". He loved it as a piece of technology but found it was occupying too much of his time, particularly that portion of his time that he usually spent staring out of the window, doing nothing in particular, just letting his mental wheels spin. This is true. Devices that are allegedly labour-saving simply make room for the introduction of further labour-saving devices.

This may be an early sign of the rehabilitation of that most underrated of human experiences. Boredom is due a comeback, I feel. I'm thinking particularly of that distinctively British variety of boredom celebrated in films like "It Always Rains On Sunday" and Hancock's "Sunday Afternoon At Home". It's that yawning prairie of time with nothing to do and nothing on the TV. The tedium of growing up in the 50s and 60s is what fired the Beatles and nearly everyone else worth hearing in British pop. For some people boredom is a powerful engine of motivation. Well now, thanks to the efforts of the entertainment industry, boredom has been banished.

Watching my own children growing up I've concluded that young people are rarely bored in the way I used to be bored at their age. This is because there's generally a button they can push that will provide something they can look at, listen to or play with, something that will stave off that boredom long before it sets in. This is good in some ways. In other ways it can result in a fidgety state of permanent distraction, an inability to just stare out of the window or go for a walk. In the near future this may become a social problem ever bit as alarming as drugs and drink.

However, I should make one thing clear. I still want an iPad.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Rumours of serious illness? Congratulations. You've arrived.

It could be that Grazia have some knowledge of the state of Lady Gaga's health. I doubt it. Magazines don't have a good record when it comes to this kind of thing. In fact they are liable to swallow whatever propaganda they are fed when they've got the act's cooperation and to run their sniping stories only when the artist has made it clear that she no longer needs them. Paula Yates was dead not long after Red magazine had run a cover story giving her a clean bill of health, mental and otherwise, River Phoenix was exalted as a paragon of clean living in all sorts of high-end magazines until he was found face-down outside the Viper Room and I've no doubt that some title will soon be running a piece about how Amy Winehouse has finally got her life together in exchange for some glamorous pictures of her new look.

The funny thing is that speculation about an artist being in the grip of a disease is one of the hallmarks of massive success. We used to notice it on Smash Hits back in the 80s. We used to get tear-stained letters on Friends Forever notepaper asking if it was true that Morten Harket or Boy George or Annie Lennox was secretly battling some life-threatening illness. We used to conclude that it was just malicious playground gossip designed to wound fans of the hot new thing. And so it proved. We would never have dreamed of printing any of it. Grazia, which is today's Smash Hits, albeit for people with a surfeit of brand-awareness, feels no such compunction.

Monday, June 14, 2010

There was no spirit of 1966

I was sixteen years old and we were on a school trip to France. That particular Saturday we took a train from Paris to the Loire Valley. There must have been about forty of us - all boys in their teens. We got to the hotel in time to watch the end of the second half and extra time sitting on our suitcases in the lobby. That's how we saw England win the World Cup.

Here's the thing about football in the 60s - it was quite a big deal but nothing like the all-consuming craziness it is today. I can't help but laugh when I hear appeals to "bring back the spirit of 66". There was no particular spirit. There was a nation, a football tournament and daily life, which went on. When the England team won it caught the nation unprepared for what it was supposed to feel. You only have to look at the venue for the team's celebrations - the Royal Lancaster Hotel. It's like a Travel Tavern.

In the very unlikely event that England get anywhere near a World Cup Final today parties of teenage schoolboys will regard it as a fundamental breach of their human rights if they're not watching the whole of it in HD on a giant screen. Nobody will be taking school parties anywhere. Everything will stop even more than it did on Saturday evening.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

The vuvuzela drowns the sound of the crowd

Three games in and I've had it with the Vuvuzela. I know it's the local custom but there are local customs all over the world that I can do without. If this noisemaker had been taken up by German or American fans rather than South African crowds it would be denounced as the tiresome annoyance it is. We had a go with one in the office yesterday and even as a solo instrument it's fearfully loud. I can only imagine what 70,000 of them would sound like. That's only a problem for those people watching in the stadium. I'm speaking on behalf of the TV viewer.

Clearly there's nothing wrong with making a noise in any way you think fit but not if it drowns out the gloriously expressive human noise that is an inescapable element of the experience of all proper sports, and football in particular. The beautiful thing about crowd noise is that it reflects even the tiniest nuance of the play. 30,000 fans chorussing "yessssss" or "refereeeee" or even just gasping is a unique and wonderful noise. If you listen to a lot of football on the radio, as I do, you can tell what's happening before the commentator has told you. The sound of an actual crowd is as varied and powerful and eloquent and moving as the best music. Terrible that we should be robbed of that wonderful human music by a musical instrument.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

What the New Yorker does and doesn't get about "soccer"

Once every four years in the run up to the World Cup, the New Yorker runs a feature about what it has to call "soccer". These pieces, with their distinctive blend of great respect and polite puzzlement, are something I have come to look forward to. They are generally the best things written about football because they take nothing for granted. After the tournament in France in 1996 the magazine's Paris correspondent, Adam Gopnik, who grew up in Europe, wrote a memorable despatch in which he unpacked his theory that soccer's essentially tragic nature, in which the bad guys (the defenders) generally prevail, made it fundamentally unappealing to Americans who like to see the triumph of the men in the white hats.

This year they've got Hampton Sides to profile the American goalkeeper Tim Howard ahead of the England-USA game this weekend. As usual it's a good read, although it falters slightly when it has to describe the English self image when it comes to football. It says England is (note the giveaway singular) "good but rarely as good as its fanatical supporters believe".

I can imagine how you might get the impression of iron fanaticism if all you read was the copy on special promotional six packs of lager. No true Englishman really believes that the team are that good. In fact, far from believing that other nations have hardly any right to play the game, as the piece implies later on, we are predisposed to think most nations are better at it than we are. It is only when we have been worked upon by our two key industries, the deadly tandem of brewing and media, that we allow ourselves to unleash the fateful lightning of that fragile spark of optimism that flickers in our breast and briefly entertain the idea that we are contenders. Come six o'clock on Saturday night we will be swaggering conquerors. By ten o'clock it will be a different story. What the New Yorker, admirable though it is, doesn't understand is what all the ancient football-playing nations off the world understand. The despair you can handle; it's the hope that does you every time .

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Whose box is this outside my house?

I think this is what they call "street furniture". This has been directly outside my house for the last twenty-two years. At first it seemed something to do with BT. Now it appears to be something to do with cable TV. Apart from the fact that it's pig-ugly and I keep bashing the car door against it what really annoys me is that the front is often left hanging open (as pictured) exposing the wires inside. If I had a vandal's nature I could reach inside, grab a fistful and plunge a load of local TVs in to darkness during "Britain's Got Talent". Years ago I asked the local council if they could do something about it and they said they couldn't, because it was all to do with some Act Of Parliament guaranteeing that you could find one of these abominations at regular intervals down every cabled road in the kingdom. Anybody know if this is true or who I could complain to? And who, apart from the viewers, would I be annoying if I decided to take direct action?

Saturday, June 05, 2010

What Mariella Frostrup and Kristen Stewart meant when they used those words

A few months ago I heard a couple of young women in conversation on the Tube. "He looked liked he was going to rape me but then he turned out to be really sweet," one said to the other. That's been ringing in my head ever since. The entire sweep of human relations reduced to violence at one end and charm at the other. It's the same style that describes things as "really brilliant" or "a bit crap".

I was reminded of that conversation this week when the actress Kristen Stewart had to apologise for likening the experience of being hounded by photographers to "being raped". At the same time the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup had to withdraw her earlier comment about the producers of Radio Four's Today programme being "a bunch of misogynists".

Let's be kind about this and assume that she reached for the word "misogynist", which means a hater of women, when what she should have used was a term indicating the producers had some kind of bias against women. Since there isn't a word that does that she would have had to articulate the actual thought. Kristen Stewart would have been more accurate if she'd said that the targets of paparazzi often looked as if they've been harried or violated. But she didn't.

In our tone deaf public discourse "personalities" reach for explosive words when they want to minutely increase the drama of their often drab conversation. This isn't just because they think it's the only way they'll be heard. It isn't just linguistic imprecision. It also has a crude moral dimension. It's intended to swiftly reduce complex issues to good guys versus bad guys and to clearly associate them with the former group. In that sense it is, to use a popular portmanteau adjective, "uncool".

Thursday, June 03, 2010

I survived the 1950s

This weekend they were celebrating the centenary of Jowett Cars, a company that manufactured cars in Yorkshire between 1910 and the early Fifties. My brother in law took this picture of a Jowett van at one of their events. We think it's the same model that my parents had when I was a small child. One day they put me in my pram, loaded it into the back of the van and then set off to Leeds. On the way round Tingley Roundabout it became apparent that the back doors weren't closed properly. The doors opened and the pram rolled out - with me in it. There wasn't as much traffic then as there is today and, this being the fifties, there was a passing District Nurse who yanked me and the pram out of danger. Doesn't mean I stop thinking about it. Obviously, as is traditionally the case with those isolated incidents of heart-stopping terror that happen when you first become a parent, they never told their parents.